I fondly remember my own junior high school assemblies – the chaotic scramble to the gym, sitting on the cold, hard floor, not being able to hear the people on stage because so many students would be talking and fooling around…
Japan takes their assemblies to a whole new level.
First, I should clarify the word “assembly.” In Newfoundland, we would refer to any gathering in the gym as an assembly. The equivalent word in Japanese translates more closely to “ceremony.” Japan loves ceremonies. Opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies, awards ceremonies, welcome ceremonies… You name it, they have ‘em. Thursday was the last day of classes for the first school term, so we had a ceremony in the gym. Today was the first day of classes for the second school term… so we had another ceremony in the gym.
The mind-blowing organization of these ceremonies begins 30 minutes before the ceremony even starts. In Japan (or, at least in my school), the chairs and desks at which the students sit are separate; thus, the chairs can be easily moved. Each student takes his or her own chair to the hallway outside of their homeroom and sits down as a homeroom in numerical order, boys in one column and girls in another. (Note that each student was assigned a number within their homeroom at the beginning of the school year. They know their number almost as well as – if not better than – they know their own name.) They patiently sit and wait until all of the homerooms are organized and they are given the OK to start moving down to the gym.
In my school, the homerooms in each grade are designated a letter; i.e., 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 2C, 3A, 3B. (Remember that 1年生 are the equivalent of Grade 7s, hence 1A, 1B; 2年生 are Grade 8s, hence 2A, 2B, 2C; and 3年生 are Grade 9s, hence 3A, 3B.) One class is designated as the first class to go down to the gym. This is the same class all the time because, when all of the classes are lined up in numerical and alphabetical order in the gym (i.e., from 1A-3B), this class is smack-dab in the middle. For explanation’s sake, let’s say this class is 2B. They pick up their chairs and march in their boy-girl columns down over the stairs and into the gym. They walk along the back of the gym until they come to the center line, turn almost as if they are one person, and walk straight down the center line. They set their chairs behind them, boys on one side of the center line and girls on the other. From here, the homeroom teacher takes one chair and uses it to space out the rows so that there is exactly one chair width between one student and the student in front of them. Once they are perfectly aligned, the numerical first male student (who has been turned around, watching and waiting for everyone to settle in) gives the OK and the students of 2B class can then sit down.
From here, the rest of the school files in, column-by-column, counting down from 2B (i.e., 2A, then 1B, then 1A). Each student arranges their chair to line up perfectly with the other chairs around them, and they sit down only when given the OK by the class leader. The remaining classes counting up from 2B also file in (i.e., 2C, 3A, 3B) and do the same.
At this point, there were now 500+ identically-uniformed 12-15 year olds sitting quietly in perfectly straight rows and columns.
Once everyone was ready, we practiced singing our school song. (Yes, my school has its own song!) It’s pretty intense in that each grade level has a different part – the 1年生 sing the melody, the 2年生 sing the top harmony, and the 3年生 sing the bottom harmony. The music teacher took turns practicing a short excerpt of the song with each grade. Once the practice was finished, the ceremony (finally) began.
Today, the ceremony started with speeches from three representatives, one from each grade. There is a very strict bowing procedure when giving speeches in Japan. You need to stand back from the podium, take one step towards it while still remaining about one step away from it, and bow. The students and teachers will then bow back at you while staying seated. The speaker then steps towards the podium and gives the speech. When finished, they take a step back and bow again. The audience bows with them, again while sitting down, and then claps.
After the representatives gave their speeches, the MC said “kiritsu” and we all stood up sharply. The music teacher played three chords on the piano – on the first one, we did nothing, on the second, we bowed, and on the third, we recovered from the bow. We remained standing while a few more words were said, then we sat down.
The principal got up and said a few words, following the same bowing procedure, and then it was time to sing the school song. We all stood up, sang the three verses, remained standing, bowed to the three musical chords again, and finally sat down. One more person gave a speech, then the ceremony was over.
The filing out of the gym was just as organized as the filing in. This time, it started from 3B and worked its way down to 1A, each student marching in their column and carrying their own chair back to their homeroom.
The Japanese ceremony is definitely one of the most obvious deviations from my home culture that I’ve seen so far at my school. The entire time during the ceremony, all of the students sat facing forwards. No one was talking with their friends – at least, not that I could see (or hear – the gym was eerily quiet considering how many of us were in there). And the order and precision in which the students move to and from the gym? Considering how young these students are, I am blown away by the discipline that they have.
You definitely don’t see that in Newfoundland.